What can we learn from not-for-profit employees about why purpose matters most?

Research Project Name

For the Love of Purpose

What We Did

We researched trends and drivers shaping the not-for-profit workforce to better understand their engagement, purpose, and motivation differentiators. We used this information to explore the “why” of not-for-profit work, and specifically the impact of intrinsic motivation and meaning on employee performance and experience. These entwined forces not only help to explain the paradoxes of the not-for-profit employees, but reveal significant challenges—and opportunities—facing all employers today.

The Context

Less than one-third of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work, a troubling statistic that has remained stagnant for almost two decades. As a response to this and other statistics on workforce dynamics, there is a growing assumption that work is “broken,” and that it has become so due to the centuries-old belief that money is the main reason people work. However, the not-for-profit sector offers a subset of workers who stand in direct contradiction to the myth of a coin-operated workforce: intelligent, talented people who have chosen the path less-paid. On average, not-forprofit employees are more educated than the general workforce, yet they face a significant income gap, earning 10 to 30 percent less than for-profit employees in comparable mid-level positions and up to 75 percent less at higher levels.

A deeper understanding of why they make that sacrifice may not only provide us valuable insights into how the workplace environment can be designed to better support them, but also points to broader ways that design can contribute to a brighter era of work itself. While our research led to some encouraging findings, it also exposed a serious problem for not-for-profits: While engagement is better among employees in the not-for-profit sector, turnover is still high. In fact, talent retention is cited in most industry surveys as one of the biggest challenges facing not-for-profit organizations. Our research presents an exciting opportunity for not-for-profits to engage their employees, reduce turnover, and achieve overall higher performance.

The Results

Why do not-for-profit employees choose their path? The results may seem obvious—they’re largely driven to the sector by the opportunity to contribute to something meaningful. However, in digging deeper, this obvious conclusion became something much more profound: Meaning comes from within, and is a key component of motivation and performance. Intrinsic motivation, or self-determined action, is an innate human characteristic tied to curiosity, persistence, direction, a desire to learn, and an inner drive to take on challenges.

On the other end of the motivational spectrum is extrinsic motivation, action carried out to earn a reward or avoid punishment. In the realm of work, extrinsic rewards include raises, bonuses, promotions, and praise, but also deadlines, pressure, rules, and bureaucracy.

Studies have proven extrinsic motivation to be highly ineffective in driving performance, often an impediment to it. Nonetheless, extrinsic rewards remain at the core of most corporate engagement initiatives and performance strategies.

Employers have enormous power to facilitate intrinsic motivation; they can align work to individual strengths, reinforce connection to the mission of the organization, and de-emphasize extrinsic rewards and regulations. To do so, employers must reimagine themselves not as enforcers of productivity, but enablers of meaning.

Workplace environments are a key lens through which employees “read” the culture of their organizational culture, whether intentional or not. A well-designed workplace can be a powerful tool to foster intrinsic motivation, and reduce turnover as a result. Even better, the other organizational benefits made possible by an increase in intrinsic motivation include a more engaged, healthier, collaborative, self-directed, resilient, enthusiastic, and loyal workforce.

Most importantly, in a sector taking on some of the most daunting challenges facing society today, intrinsic motivation is a key driver of innovation. Incremental innovation may occur through extrinsic motivation, but true, game-changing, transformational innovation—the kind that organizations across all sectors need today only comes from a fire within individuals (a flame that can be fed or extinguished).

What This Means

Support why people work, not just how. Gensler’s Workplace Surveys have shown the potential for workplace design to have a positive impact on employee performance and engagement. We believe the next step goes beyond the functional to incorporate purpose more directly—expanding the definition of “high performance” to include environments that not only support how people work, but also why.

Meaning is a feeling, not a message. Resolving the entrenched disengagement of the U.S. workforce will not take place through space-planning alone—the solution must be transformational. We must create environments where, more than just communicating mission, people experience mission and organizational meaning directly.

Make engagement a key metric and track it. The workplace presents organizations with an unmatched opportunity to amplify engagement and emotionally connect with workers. In every design decision there is an opportunity to increase employee engagement: from site selection, building orientation, and spatial configuration, to the color of the paint on the wall.

Purpose shouldn't just be for not-for-profits. Employees in not-for-profit organizations have a leg up—they’ve chosen a career path directly connected to motivation and purpose. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned for any organization and workplace. Grappling with design’s power to drive purpose can be a key goal of any workplace.

What’s Next?

Through our research, we have learned the extraordinary power of meaning and intrinsic motivation in driving higher performance. Our results will inform processes to understand the opportunities for meaning within every project, and identify design principles that help deliver on that potential, culminating in an entirely new approach for not-for-profit projects, as well as a new vocabulary to talk about design. With mission and purpose at the core of all our not-for-profit work, the opportunity to marry space and meaning is unparalleled, and the lessons learned have the potential to drive positive change at a time when the world of work sorely needs it.

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Lisa Amster, Erik Lucken, Elaine Asal, Lisa Bottom, Amanda Ramos

Year Completed